Sons of War
Astonishing stories of under-age Australian soldiers
who fought in World War II
Sydney, NSW: Affirm Press, 2022
Hardcover 384pp RRP $45.00
Reviewer: Adrian Catt, June 2023
Following upon the success of his excellent work The Lost Boys about underage Australian soldiers of World War 1, author Paul Byrnes has followed a similar, but enhanced formula, and excelled himself with this subsequent work; a vignette of 30 underage Australian boys whom enlisted in the Army during World War II.
Byrnes may have thought he would struggle with a second book, but by adopting the same technique of detailing each boys home life, sneaky attempts at enlistment, and eventual entry and deployment as a soldier, here he goes further to set-the-scene and provide outlines of the campaigns, tactics and commanders to which these crafty, but naïve, boys were deployed.
Seeing the same training, deployment, mischief, combat, sickness, and wounding as their mature-aged combatants, we follow these boys as soldiers from broken or impoverished homes to foreign lands such as Tobruk, Greece, Crete, Malaya, Borneo and New Guinea. In these places they were expected to hold their own and endure fatigue, combat, starvation, illness, wounding, imprisonment, even death, though most couldn’t even shave.
Poor command decisions by both British and Australian commanders are highlighted in this book. The cost for reckless insertions, lack of air-cover, and poor supply provisioning are described here in human terms, by the definition of lives incarcerated or lost. The author draws attention to the spectacular failures of the British in Greece and Malaya, and the Australians with Gull, Lark and Sparrow Force, to illustrate his sad point.
Naïve boys seeking adventure or escape, even financial prosperity in tough times, paid a heavy price for their eagerness to ‘do their bit’. Lying about their age, using false documents or forging their parents’ consent was the easy part. Byrne spotlights that many of those known to be underage were killed in action. Those who weren’t were to eventually be repatriated to Australia, only to be haunted by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or alcoholism for the remainder of their lives. A huge price to pay for serving your country.
Author Byrnes may have thought he didn’t have a second book within his ability, but he has created a factual, detailed and engaging work of which he ought to be proud. War is hell, not an adventure. If only these boys had truly known what they were signing-up for….
Recommended to readers of Australian Military History, and human interest.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.